I’m sure I’d read more Emily Dickinson if my Complete wasn’t roughly the size and shape of a large housebrick; tricky to read in the bath, y’know… Anyway, someone brought some ED to an online poetry share the other day, and it inspired me to strap on the wrist supports and spend some time with the housebrick. So many poems I could have brought, but today I choose number 360, which you can read here. (There’s an interesting article about Dickinson here at the Poetry Foundation, too.)

Caveat lector: I don’t know enough about Dickinson or her work to make informed pronouncements about how this poem may relate to her feelings about formal religion. Nor have I any clear idea what exactly a soul’s ‘Bandaged moment’ is. At the same time, though, I feel pretty sure there are a lot of them at the moment for most if not all of us; and certainly that I have them quite frequently. Welcome to the power of poetry: the head needn’t understand for the heart to recognise; or as Pascal rather more nattily put it, ‘le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point‘.

When (about 1000 years ago) I was an undergraduate at Cambridge I was lucky enough to hear the great Eric Griffiths lecture on what’s known as “practical criticism“. This training in responding to texts without need for elaborates frames of reference or contextual information was quite frightening at the time—there’s a nakedness to it—but has proved invaluable. It’s exposed but it’s liberating: rather than leaving you casting about anxiously to determine What The Author Meant, it’s an invitation to trust yourself and your response and thus to hear, if nothing else, what a text has to say to and about you. That this will vary from occasion to occasion only adds to the interest. We’re back to poems reading us as we read them. What you notice out there tells you something about what you’re feeling in here.

I love poetry.

Thus for me, as I read it this morning, 360 takes me to a sense of the wild varieties of mood we can feel: ‘appalled… by the ghastly Fright’ as well as ‘danc[ing]…/And swing[ing] opon the hours’. What a vast spectrum of experience so compactly, deliciously conjured. The characteristic Dickinson ellipses leave so much room. Apparent contradictions and ambiguities accumulate throughout the poem. Bandages, now: they bind up hurts; but they bind up. Are they help, or restriction, or both?

What a chilling description, too, of Fright’s delicacy—’Caress… Sip’—the deceptive almost-tenderness: no wonder that Soul’s hair is ‘freezing’. This captures something of the fascinating, hypnotic quality of abuse, control, darkness. I’m interested, too, in the fact that the escaped soul ‘dances like a Bomb’—I mean, what an expression!—and that it’s ‘delirious’ so to do: there’s a wild edge to freedom, which is then cut short by that image of being ‘retaken’, the shackled ‘Felon’, as if the soul’s freedom were a crime. Those final two stanzas recognise how rarely our moments of ‘horror’ are ‘brayed of Tongue’. I love it that Dickinson notices that—the whole poem is about noticing that—being, as you will have gathered by now, a big believer in braying…

And if 360 wasn’t enough to leave you breathless again with what Dickinson can do with so few words, check out 1292, the apparently effortless epigrammatic perfection of which leaves me thinking the rest of us might as well put down our pens, close our books, push our chairs back and walk away. But, in the end, envy is trumped by delight in what Dickinson does. She’s just so darned good.

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